by Rebecka Öhrström Kann  8/1/2023

We recently had the pleasure of speaking to AP Nguyen! AP Nguyen is an interdisciplinary artist based in London whose work explores the clichés of tourism. Through playful installations using sculpture and video, Nguyen creates miniature landscapes that unravel the narratives of desire that undergird souvenir objects and the construction of fantasy worlds for foreign consumption. We spoke about her interest in bureaucratic non-spaces, the influence of Olga Tokarczuk’s novel “Flights”, and why she likes to keep her studio clean. 

Rebecka: How would you describe your work to someone who's never seen it before?

AP Nguyen: I would probably use the term miniature landscaping as a way to quickly encompass everything I do through the use of ceramic, video, and installation. Since I work in a few different mediums, sometimes it's hard to pinpoint a linear, visual language, but I like the way that landscaping kind of denotes a larger cluster of things. Like it could be a landscape of anything.

R: The first time I saw your work, I was really struck by your use of sculpture and video because, initially, I didn't realise that the monitors were actually inside the sculptures themselves which creates another layer of activation of the objects. Obviously, they are very contrasting mediums; sculpture is traditionally comprehended as having a strong material presence, perhaps grounded in a specific location or materially “fixed”, while video is often thought of as less material in the sense of its flexibility in moving from different physical and digital platforms and the need to be activated(although that in itself is also a form of materiality). Could talk a little bit about this interest and how you developed this aspect of your practice?

AN: I think I've always loved working with video and film, but I find that it's not satisfying enough for the video work to exist on its own, as in a projection or a screen. For me, the video always needed to live inside something in order for it to be understood in a way that I envisioned. To trace it back to its starting point, the idea of the video-ceramic-installation for me began when I went on two residencies in my home country Vietnam from 2019-2020. At the time, Vietnam had managed to contain Covid so within the borders, everyone was allowed to travel and live under regular conditions. I was very lucky to do two residencies, the first at Ba-Bau AIR and the second at Manzi. On the first residency, I started working with ceramic and clay and found it to be an invigorating new medium to learn and focus on, especially in the face of the virus. On the second residency, my mentor and residency manager Bill Nguyen introduced me to the practice of Vietnamese rockery, which is called Hòn non bộ. It’s an ancient East Asian practice of assembling, carving and placing rocks together to form miniature islands inside a basin. An important element of the art form is to decorate and populate your island with miniature ceramic figurines and pagoda buildings. At that point, I was making ceramic Hòn Non Bộ’s and decorating them with miniature detritus, objects like abandoned flip flops and palm trees. I saw my own non bộ as a kitschy plastic-y object and wanted it to evoke a sense of holidaying and travel. But instead of making a small ceramic figurine, I wanted to use video to capture an actual person inside- so that the non bộ was inhabited by an animated digital spirit.  Over time, this intuitive approach has transitioned into an intentional way of making, where I now see my sculptures as a portal to another realm. And I think video really serves that purpose because, as you said, it's not fixed. With a green screen, I can transport my little characters anywhere I want.

R: I like that it really invites for close looking as well. I feel like a lot of times when video is displayed in galleries, it's generally through a huge screen as a projection or a monitor, and it’s hard to escape in the space. Here, you have to walk up close and circle the work. I also love how you referred to it as making like a little home for the video inside the sculpture and making a special place for that experience. I was also curious since sculpture is a very physical medium, what kind of atmosphere do you like working in? Do you listen to anything? And what's your studio space like?
AN: I'm super neat and really tidy. I don't know if I can work in a messy environment. My situation at the moment is interesting because I have two different studios that I go to, it can be tiring. There's a ceramic facility in Peckham where I make most of my sculptures. And then I have a studio at A.P.T. in Deptford. I'm lucky to be there until July 2024 as part of their Mentorship programme. It’s the first time since uni that I’ve had my own space for more than two months so it’s definitely been a learning curve. I would say in both of those spaces I try to keep it as tidy and neat as possible. Looking at my sculptures you probably wouldn't guess because the pieces are so texturally chaotic and biomorphic with very organic gestures. But in my own space, I would prefer everything to be super clean. Everything gets a little wipe with a wet sponge before I start, and I might go through and get rid of things and declutter every now and then. Because I've been in so many temporary studios, I feel like that's just something that I've picked up over time- every day coming in and getting rid of something to make the eventual move easier. So sterile, very contained. I wish I was messier!

R: You grew up in Hanoi, and you’re currently living in London. How have these two places influenced your creative practice and interests as an artist?

AN: I would say a lot of my aesthetic references come from things I’ve seen and grown up with. But there’s also a sense of displacement because I’m making work here in London and so those references take on new meanings for new eyes. In particular, when making my Hòn non bộ’s here in the UK, I feel like it transforms into a tourist object, like a souvenir of some kind instead of its original function, the lawn and garden ornament in Vietnamese homes. For me, they always end up looking like they belong elsewhere. I would also like to say that I've spent a lot of time in waiting rooms across the world. I don't know if that experience comes across in my work yet. But I spent a lot of time in these kinds of bureaucratic appointment-based environments like airport lounges, visa offices, hospitals, etc. I'm always going through duty-free tunnels and being confronted with, like, all these products and these glossy, slick rooms. At the moment, I’m really intrigued by the subtle romance and drama of these spaces- spaces that I’ve always occupied since childhood. I suppose it’s just taken me time to unpack and understand those experiences and now it’s at the forefront of my thinking.

R: The idea of the waiting room as a non-space is so interesting.

AN: Yeah, I feel like I finally have the means to unpack my early childhood memories and formative experiences since reading Marc Auge’s Non-places this year.  It’s given language and structure to feelings within my subconsciousness. The waiting rooms and the experience of being a human in a globalised world, always passing through, coming and going. Commuting and consuming. Constantly engaging with a cache of images of the “real” thing or “real” person.

R: When I look at your work, I feel the visible presence of the artist's hand, as opposed to more polished objects for made tourism and consumption. And I feel like, maybe that ties into what you were just saying, about wanting to keep that presence of a person versus a kind of erasure of the human, for the sake of, like, tourists consumption and hospitality.

AN: I think nowadays, souvenir objects and tourist objects are just so mundane because they’ve been so heavily mass produced. Anywhere you go, you'll find magnets and snow globes and keychains. And I find it really interesting that the tropes and stereotypes of a nation can then become encapsulated in these tiny things that people can claim as their own and take home with them. And then you have a fridge full of these magnets from all over the place and it's like your little “conquest fridge” [laughs]. Maybe those mass-produced magnets also started out of artisanal ceramic tiles made by a single craftsman once upon a time ago too?

R: I’ve never thought of it that way before [laughs]. I love that idea.

AN: I think at the end of the day, I work with ceramic and clay, and it's a bodily medium that holds imprints and memories really well. I used to like to smooth out the surfaces quite a lot but lately, I’m enjoying the gestural marks left behind from my tools and fingers- which is actually a technique of its own. It creates a sense of abstraction that’s new and enjoyable to me. I also find that living and making in London has influenced my work to be less smooth and more creased-looking. London is a city of such great speed, and time moves really weird here. It’s chaotic and as a result, some of my work reflects that tension in the crusty crispy textures of the surface.

R: No, I really like that. And I think, as you said, it breaks the fantasy in an interesting way, there is tension. I’m also curious, also, who/or what are some of your influences that helped you evolve the visual language for your work? Obviously, your interest in Hòn non bộ, but I'm curious what other things inspire you.

AN: There are some artists that I've enjoyed the work of since forever, basically. And I keep thinking that maybe I'll outgrow them, but then I just stumble upon another one of their works, and I’m like, “Oh, it's still really good.” I would say Shana Moulton is one of them. Seeing her work in person in 2018 was such a moment for me. In that show, she combined video with sculpture a lot and the whole installation was just over-the-top and all-encompassing. In her videos, she's often placed over a green screen or in a theatre-style set piece, but the video usually features her as an alter ego of herself. And something about that really speaks to me. I just find her use of symbols and objects so fun, and it's obviously very kitschy. It's very tacky and playful and kind of uncanny, which I really enjoy looking at. I would also say Mariko Mori. Particularly her earlier ethereal sculptures and her videos, where she's transformed into this space-age cyborg character. I really like the idea of using yourself as a tool, and how lo-fi and accessible your body can be as a medium. I think both Shana Moulton and Mariko Mori do that in different ways. There are some things that have influenced me that aren't super aesthetic and visual too. Olga Tokarczuk’s book Flights, I would say, where she meditates on the idea of movement and travel in a dreamy non-linear way. And randomly, the film Tár. For me, it’s a movie about interiors, it’s literally a film about the coldness of Berlin and the grandeur of the Philharmonic, so many shots of menacing hallways and tunnels and scenes inside cars and airplanes. I just loved the texture of that film. 
Lastly, I have to reference Trinh T. Minh-ha’s film Surname Viet, Given Name Nam. That film is so beautiful, and the first scene is of Hạ Long Bay followed by more poetic  juxtaposition of text and imagery over landscape. For me, Minh-ha’s work feels imbued with memory and time, and I feel like that’s what a landscape is. Rocks and stones and landscapes, for me, hold a lot of memory that isn’t really accessible to us yet we have the pleasure to live among them. I would hope that my sculptures hold the same kind of feeling of time and memory spent elsewhere.

R: What’s next for you?

AN: Next year, I have a duo show with another artist, Stanley Tilyard-French who is on the same residency as me at A. P. T. to conclude both our times there on the Fenton Arts Trust programme. It’ll be the biggest show since my solo show in Vietnam. I’m planning on making larger-scale works since the studio is so close to the gallery. There are also two shows that I’m currently part of, one is called Beauty Tech Art Spa in London Bridge at Cornershop. The show is an interpretation of the culture and ecosystem of the many nail salons in London. And then Dentro at Somers Gallery in Euston [which just closed on the 20th of November]. Potentially, in 2024, I will get to dip my toes in the New York City puddle too [laughs]... we’ll see!